The Undercover Policing Inquiry, UCPI, led by retired judge Sir John Mitting, has through the evidence put online inadvertently begun an archive on the Women’s Liberation Front, one of the infiltrated groups target for undercover police operations that also supplied British internal security agency MI5 with information. [i]
These previously secret police reports provide a partial account of the activities of the spied upon group, that could supplement other sources and accounts (such as leading member Diane Langford[ii] ) and as the spy in the midst reported:
“The WLF produced their own literature. I think it [“Women’s Liberation”] was printed at a bookshop that had a printing press, although I never visited it myself. It may have been “Banner Books”.“
The Women’s Liberation Front, was a small London-based feminist group with Maoist leanings. its meetings hosted at one of the member’s homes. Its leading members were closely associated with the Revolutionary Marxist-Leninist League under the leadership of Abhimanyu Manchanda, previously known for activities in the British-Vietnam Solidarity Front, and subject to a separate undercover assignment.[iii]
Reports were file by an undisclosed Undercover Police officer given the designation HN 348, and active in the early 1970s.[iv] While no full cover name is known, now in her 70s, she recalled using the cover name ‘Sandra’, and having seen some documents listing members of the Women’s Liberation Front that name ‘Sandra Davies’, she conceded this may well have been her. The evidence seems conclusive, yet she still wouldn’t completely confirm it was her.
She said it was “made clear that my role was just to observe and report back.” [v]
As part of her undercover profile, HN348 Sandra, established a cover address (a shared house in Paddington to which she went only occasionally) and pretended to be a Goldsmiths student.
Assessing her work infiltrating women’s rights groups in the 1970s, she does not believe her undercover work was worthwhile.
“I stand by what I say – I could have been doing much more worthwhile things with my time than my work with the SDS.”
Some of those sceptical and critical of the undercover police deployment would agree with her:
“she appeared to have had about as minor a deployment as is possible for a spycop – long ago, not for long, deployed into one group that doesn’t appear to have warranted spying on even by the police’s standards.
As it turned out, this was the point; her testimony demonstrated the lack of guidance given to officers, and the seemingly total absence of any consideration of the impact of this intrusion on the lives of those targeted.” [vi]
Indeed, that ’Sandra Davies’ was a full-time spy on them for near-on two years, producing no intelligence of any value demonstrated the generalised, hoover-up approach to information gathering, checking on people who pose no threat. The group had come to public attention for its role in the disruption of the Miss World event live on television in November 1970 – a year before Sandra HN348 joined it.
Sandra Davies’ own statement says the activists she spied on were not breaking any laws, just hosting meetings, leafleting and demonstrating – ‘all within the bounds of the law’ – and that she did not witness or participate in any public disorder during her entire deployment. So what was the point?
‘I was tasked to observe them because Special Branch did not know much about them’
The inquiry heard how women’s groups including Women’s Voice, Greenham Common, Spare Rib collective, Brixton Black Women’s movement and others were infiltrated – leading Philippa Kaufmann QC to ask “what possible justification could there be for infiltrating such organisations other than a deep hostility to women’s equality?”
In another report from November 18, 1969, officer HN336 filed, the subject of concern was a postgraduate who had begun “involving herself to some considerable extent” with the Tufnell Park Women’s Liberation Front.
“Aged about 23 years, height 5 foot 2 inches; long dark brown hair; oval face, attractive features; sometimes wears a fawn woollen dress, brown knee-length boots and a brown herring-bone patterned overcoat. It is understood she had just completed a degree course at [redacted] University.” [vii]
Sandra HN336’s target, the Women’s Liberation Front, which later became known as the Revolutionary Women’s Union [viii], campaigned for equal pay, access to contraception and paid maternity leave. The undercover officer, Sandra, claimed the group was of interest to Special Branch because of possible links with “more extreme groups” such as the Angry Brigade and “Irish extremists.”
The monitoring group ‘Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance’ noted in relation to
The Inquiry was shown a report [UCPI0000026992] of a WLF study group on 11 March 1971, comprising of seven people meeting in someone’s home.
Davies reported that one woman present praised the recent actions of the IRA, which she described as ‘a good way to start a revolution’. She’d put the words in quote marks.
We should note that, at this time, the IRA was only attacking British military targets in Northern Ireland. It is extraordinary that this comment on current affairs, made in a private home with no intent for action of any kind, was deemed worthy of reporting and filing by Britain’s political secret police. So much for ‘you are free to express your opinions’.
There seemed to be little else in the way of Davies reporting on the Irish situation she’d suggested as one of her true targets.” [ix]
There was a pattern of weekly WLF meetings held in the evenings at people’s private homes. They were mostly study groups, reading political texts and discussing them. Some of Sandra Davies’s reports were on meetings of the six person WLF Executive Committee. Women’s Liberation Front AGM minutes 1972, records spycop ‘Sandra Davies’ elected as treasurer.
Reports were filed on a talk by Leila Hassan from the Black Unity and Freedom Party (BUFP), ‘general discussion’ of a ‘The East is Red’ –described as a ‘Chinese Revolutionary film’, meeting of the Friends of China, and document UCPI0000027026 was a report of a WLF meeting, dated 8 December 1971. The speaker had returned from a trip to China and ‘was clearly very impressed by the Chinese system’. This developed into a group discussion about all aspects of everyday life in China, including the use of acupuncture.
Other topics of reports to Special Branch were on the Black Unity and Freedom Party asking the WLF to contribute home-made sweets and cakes to a children’s Christmas party in 1971, a jumble sale being organised by the WLF, and idle personal gossip about individual circumstances or relationships. There were reports on a school strike organised by the Schools Action Union in May 1972, running to 13 separate numbered paragraphs of intelligence – with a lot of detail. It named several of the children who’d been arrested.
Tom Ford noted, Sandra’s report included the “subversive” activity of wanting better child-care:
“Members would also be visiting Chapel Street Market each Saturday and Sunday, 840 signatures had been collected. It was hoped eventually to deliver the petition to Islington council with a demand for a nursery in the area.”
A copy of the petition, included in the police report, said: “We demand that day nurseries be set up wherever there is a need. They should be cheap, open all year round and staff should be fully trained and well paid.”
Sandra HN348 did not see any of the WLF members she spied on acting violently or committing crimes. Instead the purpose of spying on the group was to know whether it was “worthwhile” to infiltrate it, she said. She described the group as vocal but aspirational only and taking part in demonstrations with placards and banners. Its membership was “No more than 12” was her count.
One of the meetings HN348 Sandra spied on that concerned the possibility of setting up a national movement of socialist women was only attended by two activists. She reported that attendees of one such meeting in Guildford, Surrey, in June 1972 were “a group of fairly moderate women with no particular political motivation who have recently been campaigning for nurseries in the Guildford area”.
It is not surprising that her own assessment of her deployment was, “I do not think my work really yielded any good intelligence, she said in self-defence in her written evidence, “but I eliminated the WLF from public-order concerns,” [x]
Diane Langford, who is named in relation to various reports on the WLF, raised the issue of homophobic, sexist and racist language in reports from the SDS, which included “racist, anti-Semitic, sexist and judgemental descriptions of people’s appearances that fill police officer’s notebooks”.
Diane Langford told the inquiry how “discovering the groups I was involved in and the Women’s Liberation Movement as a whole were secretly surveilled has been a traumatising experience”.
She explained how it was “harrowing to find out about the pernicious attitudes of officers, masquerading as comrades and friends and sisters, who inveigled their way into our homes, meetings, families and lives” and that “the betrayal of trust is unforgivable”.
Describing the intrusion, Langford noted how the SDS “hoovered-up our data”, with reports providing individuals’ names, ages, physical appearance, family relationships, social security status – “even a sample of a woman’s handwriting”. [xi]
She told the inquiry how in the reports “we find the work of people working in good faith in the hope of creating a future free of oppression, distorted by the grubby lens of officers who cannot understand what they are spying on”.
Sandra’s testimony to the Inquiry, on events of 50 years previous, stated, [xii]
“the women’s movement was really growing. The Angry Brigade were linked to the women’s movement and so were lots of other left-wing extremist groups that were latching onto it. This was before the Equal Pay Act 1970 had come into force. There were certain jobs even then where you had to leave when you got married. I did not understand the logic of that: it seemed unfair. Even in the police service, women had the same powers as men but I was only paid 90% of what the men were paid. I was interested in women’s issues, such as contraception and nurseries. I was genuinely interested when those topics were discussed in the bigger meetings, but not the extremist activities.”
“The activities the groups I infiltrated were involved in were hosting meetings, leafleting and demonstrations. They were all within the bounds of the law. The political ideology they were promoting did not spill over into what they were doing. They were just very vocal. Of course. the MPS were concerned about whether it would spill over. The Irish situation was very bad at the time and there were links between Ireland and some of the groups we were infiltrating.”
I considered one of the main aims of the SDS to gather intelligence to draw links between different groups and individuals.
Reported on what the WLF were saying and the literature they were distributing, focused on what they were going to do. I would also pick up leaflets and report on the Chinese revolutionary films that were shown.
I simply reported the location of any meetings, the numbers at that meeting, the start and finish times, and what was discussed. I reported any future plans and the likely numbers if there was a demonstration. For example, I reported that “a rally would commence at 1 pm in Trafalgar Square and four RWU members would attend” in the Special Report dated 28 September 1972 (Doc 7, Tab 56 UCPI0000011758.) which would help with police preparation.
“At the time, I felt quite detached from the activists and that I was not in any particular danger, especially at the public meetings which were open to anyone. But it was always in the back of my mind that someone would point a finger at me and accuse me of being a UCO, which would have been embarrassing at the least.”
Frequently when asked about specific reports, Sandra’s standard reply was “I do not specifically recall writing this report and so I cannot fully explain why this information is included”.
“I have seen the Special Report dated 22 January 1971 written by HN45 (Doc 9, UCPI0000011740) I note that, at paragraph 3, HN45 states the meeting was to plan activities for the WLF, British Vietnam Solidarity Front and Friends of China. This makes it look like a much bigger movement, but there were only fourteen people present at that meeting and very often these groups had an overlap of the same people. I note also that, at paragraph 5, he refers to the start of a new branch of the WLF in North London being run by <retracted> and <retracted> I was not aware that intelligence from HN45 prompted my recruitment to join this group, although this possibly could have happened.
I agree that the WLF/RWU was revolutionary in terms of their Maoist ideology, which was opposed to democratic values. The way they talked suggested they would have liked to have overthrown Parliamentary democracy, but “overthrow” is a huge word and this was a small group, so it was not something that they could have done in reality. I was not even aware of the WLF being involved in any criminal activity apart from putting up posters (if that would be considered criminal) and there is no record in the reports of any WLF member committing any act of public disorder or being arrested at any demonstrations.
I did not say much at these meetings. This did not arouse suspicion as many of them were very vocal and glad to have a passive ear sitting there listening to them.
The WLF was much more talk than action. I was tasked to observe them because Special Branch did not know much about them and wanted to find out what was really happening.
Her judgement was that the Police “did not really know very much about the smaller groups and wanted to know more to see if they were of significance to state security or any real threat to our democracy. It was not until the SDS got involved that we knew if it was worthwhile to infiltrate a group. I do not think my work really yielded any good intelligence, but I eliminated the WLF from public order concerns.”
I have been asked why I thought Special Branch needed to know the sums of contributions being made by members present at the meeting held on 25 November 1971, as stated in the Special Report dated 1 December 1971 (Doc 1 7, UCPI0000010923 1). I have found this document very difficult to read as it is of poor quality. It is not clear to me what the contributions related to except that they may have been to cover running costs for a Centre in Leamington Spa. It may have been for the Nurseries Campaign, which is mentioned a few lines above. The availability of free nurseries in the community and attached to places of work was a key issue for the women’s liberation movement at that time. I do not specifically recall writing this report and so I cannot fully explain why this information is included. As far as I recall, my reports covered as much as was necessary so my senior officers and others could understand the tone of the meeting and the types of things they were discussing. The activists were talking about nurseries at the larger meetings as well, so it was a prominent issue and relevant to the right for women to work as the nurseries would support that right.
I have been asked why I thought Special Branch needed to know that some of the group would be making homemade sweets and cakes for the Children’s Christmas Party on 18 December 1971, as stated in the Special Report dated 13 December 1971 (Doc 18, UCPI0000010932 I). I note that paragraph 5 of that report states that the Children’s Christmas Party was being run by the Black Unity and Freedom Party (“BUFP”), who had asked the WLF members for contributions. I do not specifically recall writing this report and so I cannot fully explain why this information is included. But as stated above, I think some of the main things the senior officers were interested in were the links between groups. With this in mind, the information might have been included to support the link between the BUFP and the WLF.
This report also refers to an Irish woman coming from Dublin at a time of troubles in Northern Ireland and being arrested for her links to the Angry Brigade. I knew very little about the Angry Brigade, even at the time, except that alarm bells rang if they were mentioned as they were very active and had links with the IRA. The report states that this information had come from <<retracted>> via <<retracted>> I do not recall the connection between <<retracted>> <<retracted>> . or <<retracted>> and the Angry Brigade. I assume it was mentioned in the hope that somebody would have been able to make a connection somewhere along the line. This is another example of how the reporting could attempt to draw links between these people. In the 1970s, direct action in Ireland was affecting so many people’s lives.
I have been asked why I thought Special Branch needed to know that one of the members had been accused of having an affair with the husband of another member, as stated in the Special Report dated 4 January 1972 (Doc 14). The report refers to this accusation being made by <<retracted>> “of Banner Books” and prompted <<retracted>> to end her employment at that bookshop. I do not specifically recall writing this report and so I cannot fully explain why this information is included. But I recall that this bookshop was quite significant: there was another Maoist group involved with them and they had a printing press there. I do not recall if they were printing “Women’s Liberation” at Banner Books, but they may have been. This information once again shows the links between organisations, in this case the breakdown in the relationship between the WLF and Banner Books. It also gives a flavour of the meetings and the level of things that were discussed. The accusation of an affair would also have been a potentially major event in the history of the WLF. The Maoist philosophy is quite purist and they would frown upon things such as affairs. In Maoist China, they even had a lot of strict rules about their style of dress and how they presented themselves because the clothes they wore depended on their status.
I have been asked about reports recording meetings in the homes of private individuals. The WLF meetings I attended were often in the homes of <<retracted>> I was just invited to the meetings, I told my senior officers, and there was no suggestion that I should not attend because the meetings were held in people’s homes.
An event like a jumble sale might reveal links between different people and different groups that attended, all under the auspices of a fundraising sale. It was something the WLF was doing, as opposed to ideology and rhetoric, which I would not have recorded. This report would put a flag in the diary on that date so someone could be directed to attend. I cannot recall the sale itself, but it might have been something I attended.
My recollection is that the Marxists hated the Trotskyists and the Trotskyists hated the Marxists, but everyone hated the Maoists.
[ii] a more rounded political memoir of the WLF comes in ‘The Manchanda Connection’
by Diane Langford, Manu’s partner from 1968 till 1982.
Also see her Opening Statement to the Undercover Policing Inquiry at
[vii] Tom Ford, Revolutionaries? Undercover cops spied on mums calling for better day care. Islington Tribune November 20, 2020
[viii] The Women’s Liberation Front held their AGM on 6 February 1972. They agreed to adopt a new constitution (that meant only women could be members) and new aims and a change of name, The Revolutionary Women’s Union.
Its new list of aims said it sought:
- ‘To organise women in general, working class women in particular, to fight for the elimination of all exploitation and oppression and for a socialist society.
- ‘To expose the oppression suffered by women and to relate this to capitalist society and to oppose those who confuse the effects of women’s oppression for the real cause, ie the private ownership of the means of production.’
The group wanted to achieve these things as a path towards things that sound largely moderate and desirable to modern ears:
- ‘To demand equal opportunities in employment and education.
- ‘To fight for equal pay for work of equal value.
- ‘In order that women have real opportunities to take part in social production, we demand that crèches and nurseries are installed at the place of work, education and in the community, wherever there is a need.
- ‘All women should have the right to have children or not. In order to make this right effective, alongside child-care facilities, adequate contraceptive and abortion information and facilities should be made available free on the NHS.
- ‘To demand maternity leave for a definite period with no loss of pay, in the pre-natal and post-natal periods, and the right to return to the same job, guaranteed by law.
- ‘To fight against all discrimination and injustice suffered by women in all realms of society, in laws as regards marriage and divorce, in the superstructure; customs and culture.
- ‘To fight against the discrimination suffered by unmarried mothers and their children.
- ‘To wage a consistent struggle against male chauvinism and to strive to educate and encourage men to participate in all our activities.
- ‘To take our full part in the struggles against the growing attacks on our standard of living and our democratic rights and against the growing racism and fascist policies of the ruling class.
- ‘To mobilise women to support the anti-imperialist struggles of all oppressed peoples for the realisation of our common aim, the ending of the system of exploitation and oppression.’
[xi] Sian Norris, ‘A Deep Hostility to Women’s Equality’ More Accusations of Police Misogyny in the Spy Cops Inquiry. April 23rd 2021
[xii] Scoured out from https://www.ucpi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/MPS-0741698.pdf